For as much as the NFL is an image-conscious league, there is one unfortunate truth about its mind-numbing and protracted labor talks with game officials: The league isn’t in any hurry. There is no financial hit. The TV deals are safe, and no team is going to sell one less ticket or replica jersey if a replacement referee – whose resume highlights just may include the Lingerie Football League – happens to blow a call or refers to Atlanta as “Arizona.”
There is no reason to hide from any of that because even NFL vice president Ray Anderson, a former Falcons executive, shoved that reality up front in a phone conversation Friday: “We’ve offered raises of 5 to 11 percent. Just because the owners can afford to pay more doesn’t mean you do it. You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game. Nobody has ever paid to watch me be the league supervisor for a game.”
He is right, of course. The problem is that the NFL season begins in less than three weeks, and there has been disturbing foreshadowing that suggests the referees may be the “entertainment.”
Two weeks into the exhibition season, we’ve seen a New York Giants punt returner called for holding (now that’s talent); a punt ruled a touchback even though it was clearly downed on the 4-yard line; a phantom facemask penalty against the Falcons’ Jonathan Babineaux (the official was the play); Atlanta being referred to as “Arizona” by a referee multiple times; a referee calling out the wrong winner of the coin flip before the Hall of Fame game; players witnessing debates between officials while they sort through confusion.
There almost certainly has been more. But that’s enough to paint a picture.
Most Falcons players wouldn’t bite on officiating questions, fearing they would be fined. But cornerback Dunta Robinson said after Thursday’s game, “I’m trying to take the good out of it and say: It’s preseason for them also. Some calls didn’t look like fouls to me. I think we got flagged just for playing hard. So Ed Hochuli: Get it right man. Come on back. We need you.” (Hochuli is a long-time respected official.)
Anderson, a point man for the league in talks with officials, has witnessed some mishaps in person, and whatever he has missed he has heard about later. But he’s not fazed. He said “there have been no more mistakes in the preseason” than there would be with regular officials, adding, “They’re just being highlighted because of the situation.”
Anderson said, “At this point, it’s very likely” replacement officials will start the regular season. (One Falcon said he was told to expect three games with replacements.)
“By the time the season starts, this will be a very credible group of officials,” Anderson said. “We’re frankly very comfortable.”
This is beyond silly. It’s irresponsible. It damages the product. Officials mistakes can determine game outcomes. Outcomes determine standings, playoff teams and seeding. We haven’t even addressed the potential of safety issues related to a poorly officiated game (rules are meant to protect players).
These replacement officials aren’t even as good as the ones who worked in 20o1. At least those were from BCS conferences. Most of these are from smaller conferences and the Arena League. Referee Craig Ochoa worked in the Lingerie Football League. Shannon Eastin, the first woman official, is from the MEAC.
The NFL is a $9.3 billion industry. It’s disingenuous enough when owners plead poverty and cut the pay of office staff during CBA talks, when network paychecks are hanging in the balance. But the difference between the two sides in these negotiations is relative change between the couch cushions.
The sides are roughly $2.2 million apart for the 2012 season and $16.5 million over five years. That’s a lot for us peasants. But let’s break it down. The $2.2 million equates to $65,750 per team. The $16.5 million over five years equates to $103,124 per team per year — or $6,445.31 per game. That’s roughly the cost of 60 game tickets, or the low end of a Georgia Dome suite for one game ($6,200-$14,000).
“So all we have to do is ask Arthur Blank to put another $100,000 in the pot with the other teams because he can afford it?” Anderson said. “Owners don’t do business that way. Owners will pay employees commensurate to their value.”
The message being: The NFL isn’t placing a high value on the officials.
They had better hope the right parties are providing the entertainment when the season starts.
By Jeff Schultz